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The Problem Isn't Teacher Recruiting; It's Retention

Nationally, schools lose between $1 billion and $2.2 billion in attrition costs each year through teachers moving or leaving the profession, according to new research from the Alliance for Excellent Education. Frequently, the shift occurs among teachers moving from poor to non-poor schools, from high-minority to low-minority schools and from urban to suburban schools.

The result is a spiral of loss that affects high-poverty schools disproportionately. "The monetary cost of teacher attrition pales in comparison to the loss of human potential associated with hard-to-staff schools that disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color," explained Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia, who leads the Alliance. "In these schools, poor learning climates and low achievement often result in students — and teachers — leaving in droves."

Yet, the way to turn this problem around, said the Alliance, isn't a mystery: It requires more attention paid to teacher induction, particularly among new teachers in hard-to-staff schools.

Teachers move, according to "On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers," because of job dissatisfaction, including inadequate administrative support, isolated working conditions, poor student discipline, lower salaries and a lack of collective teacher influence over school decisions.

"In short," wrote Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, "the data suggest that school staffing problems are rooted in the way schools are organized and the way the teaching occupation is treated and that lasting improvements in the quality and quantity of the teaching workforce will require improvements in the quality of the teaching job."

Ingersoll, who led the research for the project, noted during a webinar on the report that much more attention tends to be paid to recruitment of teachers than to their retention. As an example, he said, "There's a lot of misinformation out there on both the math-science teacher shortage and minority teacher shortage." The national issues of math-science and minority teacher shortages are often misdiagnosed, he asserted.

On the first category, he noted, "It turns out almost every president since Eisenhower at one point or another has given a speech on the math-science teacher shortage. We have all kinds of initiatives designed to bring more math-science degrees and people into teaching." But the data indicate that there are "more than enough" qualified math-science teachers. "Rather what we have is a retention problem. We lose far too many math-science teachers."

The second category is also misunderstood, Ingersoll added. "There's no question. We have what's called a parity gap — that the percentage of students in our elementary/secondary schools who are a minority is greater than the percentage of teachers [who are]."

Recruitment efforts have paid off, however. "We've had an over a 100 percent increase in the number of minority teachers in the last [15] years," he said. Yet minority teachers quit at far higher rates than white non-minority teachers. "In effect, this growth in the numbers of minority teachers is all the more remarkable, because it's in spite of the fact of the high quit rates."

National reform efforts are "being very successful at bringing people in but then a whole lot of them are leaving," Ingersoll observed. "We need both recruitment and retention. Doing one alone simply is not going to close that parity gap."

The report stated that without "access to excellent peers and mentors and/or opportunities for collaboration and feedback," teachers' performance in high-poverty schools stall within a few years and the teachers depart for green pastures — at rates roughly 50 percent higher than in affluent schools. Ultimately, the report notes, these hard-to-staff schools become known as "places to leave, not places in which to stay."

The report provides a remedy — an induction program that includes mentoring, common planning times and continual support from school leaders. Teachers who get those ingredients on a steady basis are more satisfied with their jobs, get better ratings with their classroom teaching practices and are "associated" with higher levels of student outcomes.

The report calls attention to the work of a Santa Cruz, CA organization, the New Teacher Center, a non-profit that teams up with states and districts to help them develop induction models for new teachers.

The report also makes five policy recommendations for states and districts:

  • To take evaluations of teachers using multiple measures;
  • To develop data systems that use performance measures that promote high-quality educator development and teaching;
  • To implement induction programs for new teachers that last for a minimum of two years and make successful completion part of the licensure process;
  • To embed analysis and improvement of teaching and learning conditions; and
  • To support staff selection and professional growth systems that encourage "collegial collaboration."

"To fundamentally transform education and help students meet the higher performance required by the Common Core State Standards and other college- and career-ready standards, the culture of how teachers are supported must change," said Wise. "Such a change requires new initiatives and structures to attract, develop and retain the best teaching talent in high schools serving students with the greatest needs, as well as a system that ensures that new teachers receive comprehensive induction and access to school-based collaborative learning."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.